This week’s poem reminded me of this recurring dream I have. In the dream, for some quite unexplained reason, I have broken in to my old childhood home and am looking around, or else just sitting around when the owners return. I panic and search out a hiding place or try to escape through the garden. Sometimes I wake up there, sometimes the dream continues and I meet the owners – they are, of course, strangers. Strike that – it is I who am the stranger.
I know what the dream means, I think. It arises from a nostalgia for my early childhood, tinged – or stained, if you like – with an unaccountable or irrational guilt. Quite normal dream feelings, those. But there’s something else in it too. Maybe it’s just the other side of nostalgia, but my dream self, silly bugger that he is, seems always to be shocked that the past is past, that what is lost remains lost, and that his feeling for the house and its garden and its rooms is not reciprocated: this place has forgotten him.
Oh hell, the Russian writer Andrey Platanov expressed this much better than I can. This is from the story Soul, in which the protagonist visits his old college:
He went around all the unneeded things in the yard and touched them with his hand; for some reason he wanted them to remember him and love him. But he didn’t believe that they would. He knew from a childhood memory how strange and sad it is to see a familiar place after a long separation. Your heart is still bound to the place, but the unmoving objects have forgotten you and do not recognize you; it is as if they have been living an active and happy life without you, and you have been alone in your feeling – and now here you are before them, an unknown and pitiful creature.
(Transl. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler 1999, nyrb classiscs,)
So much for your attachment to places and things then – it’s just so much misplaced sentiment. Those walls, the garden, the oak-panelled stairway and the worn leather furniture: sorry, they’re just not that into you. But you can deal with that, can’t you? After all, unless you’re some kind of animist, you really knew all along that things have no feelings, no memories of people. And you can at least comfort yourself with the knowledge that, even if places and things won’t, people will still think of you after you’re gone…
Or can you? Christina Rossetti isn’t so sure. In this poem too, somebody speaks of that spooky return to an old home, of that forlorn hope for a connection with that past…
When I was dead, my spirit turned
To seek the much-frequented house:
I passed the door, and saw my friends
Feasting beneath green orange boughs;
From hand to hand they pushed the wine,
They sucked the pulp of plum and peach;
They sang, they jested, and they laughed,
For each was loved of each.
I listened to thier honest chat:
Said one: “To-morrow we shall be
Plod plod along the featureless sands,
And coasting miles and miles of sea.”
Said one: “Before the turn of tide
We will achieve the eyrie-seat.”
Said one: “To-morrow shall be like
To-day, but much more sweet.”
“To-morrow,” said they, strong with hope,
And dwelt upon the pleasant way:
“To-morrow,” cried they, one and all,
While no one spoke of yesterday.
Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
“To-morrow and to-day,” they cried;
I was of yesterday.
I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the table-cloth;
I, all-forgotten, shivered, sad
To stay, and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.
Like me in my dream, like the character in Soul, the speaker in At Home is returning home. This speaker, however, is dead. Victorians loved ghosts, didn’t they, especially the kind that prowl around houses in a melancholy fashion. Invisible then, she comes across a group of her old friends indulging in sensory pleasures – fruit, wine, laughter and singing. There is a distinct sexual undertone here: the girls are enjoying the pleasures of the flesh – all that pulpy, fleshy fruit. And what’s more, they’re intoxicated by it all, not just that wine.
Is there a slightly bitter aftertaste here, as with that wine the girls are quaffing? ‘For each was loved of each’, Rossetti tells us in the last line, but does she really think so, or does she seek to imply that what the girls really love is their own pleasure?
As the ghost listens further, we find that the girls are entirely focused on the pleasures of the present and the exciting thoughts of the future. The one thing they don’t talk about is the past, and the ghost, dead and gone, is part of that past.
In ghost stories, it is a well-used convention that when a ghost passes, a living person will shiver, but Rossetti inverts this convention: it is not the living who shudder, but the ghost. Why after all would the living shudder? They are enjoying themselves. The ghost is dead and has been forgotten, in Rossetti’s phrase has ‘passed away’ from love.
One senses a moral wrinkle in the nose of the poet as she writes here, a disapproval of the flighty, giggly girls enjoying themselves; Rossetti herself was averse to pleasure, once giving up chess because she found herself enjoying winning too much. There is an unmistakable aftertaste of sin around the girls’ pleasure, implicit in the fruit and the wine with its religious connotations.
And one can’t help feel that the ghost represents the feelings of Rossetti – not so much imagining herself come back as a spirit when dead – unlike this ghost, she did not die as a young girl – but the living Christina Rossetti, who forsook a more pleasing, comfortable life, who never married and lived in abstinence, so that she could look after sick relatives and stay true to her religious convictions – an admirable life, in many ways, though it must have caused her some regret and resentment. This ghost may regret the self-centred fickleness of her living friends, but she may well also regret not having been loved enough to be remembered.